Head's Address - Prize Giving 2019
Seven years earlier, in September 1962, President John F Kennedy made his famous speech in Houston in Texas, home of mission control for the Apollo programme, when he said, ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.’ Kennedy, of course, would not live to see his vision fulfilled, but the credit for the energy and determination must surely go to him.
A team of psychologists from Harvard once visited the launch site at Cape Canaveral at the height of the American space programme. One of them needed the toilet and, when he went in, he found a janitor mopping the floor. The psychologist asked the man to tell him about his job and the reply came, ‘Sir, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.’
It was not all so harmonious. In the months leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing, the astronauts trained in a remote moon-like desert in the western United States, an area home to several Native American communities. One day, they came across an old man, who asked what they were doing there and they told him they were preparing for a trip to the moon.
The old man fell silent for a few moments and then asked the astronauts if they could do him a favour. He explained that the people of his tribe believed that holy spirits live on the moon and he asked the astronauts to pass an important message to the moon spirits from his people. They agreed and he then asked them to repeat the message several times to ensure they had memorised it correctly. The astronauts asked the man what the message meant, but he said it was a secret that only his tribe and the moon spirits were allowed to know.
When they returned to their base, the astronauts searched for someone who could speak the tribal language and asked him to translate the secret message. When they repeated what the old man had said, the translator burst out laughing.
The astronauts waited for him to calm down and then asked him what was so funny. The man explained that the sentence they had memorised translated as: ‘Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.’
So, what conclusions can we draw from these space tales and how can we relate them to our day to day experiences at Radnor House?
The Native American teaches us to be careful about the motives of others, to seek after truth where we can and not to believe everything we are told. Similarly, with Neil Armstrong’s words, let us not simply accept what we hear without questioning it; instead, let us bring our acute judgement to the words of others. And let us make sure we act in the interests of others as well as ourselves, celebrating their achievements and building a community where respect genuinely permeates everything we do.
The passion and energy of JFK, himself a flawed and difficult character, should inspire us to take on the very biggest challenges, to believe that anything is possible and nothing is beyond us, if we trust our abilities, our limitless minds, and commit to working as hard as we can. We can call it courage.
The journey to a better future for all of us can begin today in many ways, with a simple example of changing our mindset by adding a three-letter word to the work-pattern of those reluctant, ‘I can’t do it’, people. The word ‘yet’ changes the phrase ‘I can’t’ from one of failure to one of potential success. ‘I can’t do it yet’ opens the door to just about anything. It means that you know if you keep going, show perseverance and have the right attitude then your chances of success will improve significantly.
As for excellence, you can find it everywhere, every day, in all that we do. The teamwork and sense of purpose of the janitor at Cape Canaveral is striking because he clearly felt part of a greater whole. I haven’t directly asked our support staff at school if they feel they are contributing to our equivalent of putting a man on the moon. If they don’t, any fault certainly does not lie with them and I would like to take this opportunity to give a public vote of thanks to all the support staff at the school – the premises team, café and bistro staff, marketing and admissions, finance, administration, HR, IT support, technicians, exams and our school nurse – for all their hard work in helping the school to run. Quite simply, we could not do it without them.
Great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and are fascinated with the process of learning. They set high standards for all their pupils, not just the ones who are already achieving, and show pupils how to reach these goals. They challenge and nurture. They continue to learn along with their pupils, taking them to the edge of their comfort zones and then taking them further.
Schools must be seed planters who have the courage to plant a seed to grow a tree under the shade of whose branches we will rarely be able to sit. There is a Chinese proverb that says, ‘The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second-best time is now.’ As some of us have learned ourselves this year, the planting of seeds and the growing of trees always involves learning, because the answers we have now are only temporary resting places in our current understanding.
Last year, I was copied in to this message sent to some of my colleagues by a pupil who had left the school. ‘Dear Radnor House Teachers, thank you all so much for your encouragement and support this year. I have never achieved more or enjoyed learning more than I have this year, and I can only attribute this to your teaching and guidance. I will miss not being able to ask the enormous number of questions that I come up with every lesson, and the satisfaction of occasionally catching some of you out. I could not have asked for better teachers. May you continue to guide others to excellence as you have done for me. Thank you.’
As well as my thanks to the support staff, I would therefore also like to express my sincere gratitude to the teachers at Radnor House. I know from what I see in the classrooms and around the school, from what I hear from the pupils and from the progress that is being made in all areas of school life that they are a dedicated and committed group of people who bring a wealth of talent, energy and experience to our daily lives. It is a genuine pleasure and a privilege to share a working environment with them.
To those who are moving on, we send our best wishes and our thanks for all you have done during your time here. People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown. But the single greatest constant of history is that everything changes, so our ability to adapt to change prepares us all well for the host of challenges that always lie ahead.
Last summer’s A Level and GCSE results showed us all what was possible and laid a platform on which future cohorts can build. Each week, we try in our weekly bulletin to highlight achievements across as broad a range as we can. Yes, there’s a lot of sports news, because sport is important to a lot of people and we play a lot of it for just that reason. On fields, in nets, on tracks, in boats, our pupils are achieving so much about which they can be proud, with the very best reaching international potential, but with all playing their part in that ideal mix of challenging the most talented and trying to include everyone.
If you have never been to a school play, never attended a Christmas or summer concert, never been to a performing arts soiree or seen the annual art show, you have missed the chance to witness achievement in these crucial areas. The confidence gained from standing on a stage and being applauded for your efforts can be life changing, and in an educational environment too often obsessed with measurement, data and STEM subjects, we at Radnor House will continue to promote the arts as best we can, secure in the knowledge of Einstein’s words that not everything that counts can be measured and not everything that can be measured counts.
Other achievements can be found in key skills awards in ICT and coding competitions run by GCHQ, another victory in the annual Rotary technology competition, a host of UKMT maths awards, participation in the Lessons from Auschwitz programme, published journalism articles, poetry recitals, EPQ and HPQ presentations and awards, alongside the host of other successes that we try to highlight each week.
There have been so many great moments, but a particular favourite came for me last week when I was reading the Year 8 and Year 9 reports. While it is always lovely to find those pupils who are graded as excellent in almost everything, I am drawn to those who do not find things quite so easy but who nevertheless take on board the feedback from previous reports and change their approach for the better.
This strikes me as the most encouraging sign of progress and I congratulate everyone who has improved this year as a result of self-reflection, which is not something that comes easily to many.
I’ve had this sign in my office for many years. It’s not rocket science. Well, actually, to put a man on the moon is rocket science and we should all be in awe of those who are able to contribute to such progress for man or mankind. But for most of us, the answers are a bit simpler, and they usually involve hard work, resilience and determination. When the American actor Spencer Tracy was asked what was the secret of great acting, he said, ‘Learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.’
In summary, then, life is complicated. It needs courage, excellence, perseverance and respect to succeed and I firmly believe we are doing our best to instil these values in the children in our care, and it is absolutely my intention to continue to do so.
They say the difference between salad and garbage is timing, so I’ll finish now with a piece of wisdom that has always inspired me. It’s called ‘The Station’ by Robert J Hastings, and I think it needs no further explanation.
Tucked away in our subconscious minds is an idyllic vision. We see ourselves on a long, long trip that almost spans the continent. We’re traveling by passenger train, and out the windows we drink in the passing scene of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at a crossing, of cattle grazing on a distant hillside, of smoke pouring from a power plant, of row upon row of corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of mountains and rolling hillsides, of city skylines and village halls, of biting winter and blazing summer and cavorting spring and docile fall.
But uppermost in our minds is the final destination. On a certain day at a certain hour we will pull into the station. There will be bands playing and flags waving.
And once we get there so many wonderful dreams will come true. So many wishes will be fulfilled and so many pieces of our lives finally will be neatly fitted together like a completed jigsaw puzzle.
How restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the minutes for loitering … waiting, waiting, waiting, for the station.
However, sooner or later we must realise there is no one station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us.
“When we reach the station, that will be it!” we cry. Translated it means, “When I’m 18, that will be it! When I buy a new 450 SL Mercedes Benz, that will be it! When I put the last kid through college, that will be it! When I have paid off the mortgage, that will be it! When I win a promotion, that will be it! When I reach the age of retirement, that will be it! I shall live happily ever after!”
Unfortunately, once we get ‘it’, then ‘it’ disappears. The station somehow hides itself at the end of an endless track. ‘Relish the moment’ is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 118:24: ‘This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.’ It isn’t the burdens of today that drive men mad. Rather, it is regret over yesterday or fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are twin thieves who would rob us of today.
So, stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more and cry less. Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough.